In the vast, rugged mountains overlooking the sleepy, blue-washed walls of Chefchaouen, northern Morocco, Berber men and women weave labors of love in the strands of rustic cotton textiles called ‘mandils’. Rich hues, created by broad, calloused hands from years of hard physical toiling.

These fabrics are produced from natural dyes and carefully woven on traditional horizontal wooden looms. The material is then transformed into rustic striped cotton pieces; matching the ivory clouds and the fierce sun in their pure tones.

Women’s weaving groups are scattered throughout the haunting mountains of this region; loosely-organized co-ops where women make a small profit to support their families with these sustainable pieces that can be used as blankets, throws or towels. But for the locals, they are much more than a decorative piece.

The history of this striking red and white fabric is as fascinating as the women who wear them-the hearty women of the Rif region of Northern Morocco have worn these ‘mandils’ as aprons for centuries. The reason is deeply rooted in a utilitarian sense; the fabrics are used for practicality-they are deeply warm in the cool, mountain air and can easily be thrown over other clothes for extra insulation.

And why the red and white stripes? The answer is, like the history of Chaouen itself, a bit of a mystery. One theory is that the stripes have just evolved as a natural way to add interest with a simple pattern.

Another speculation is that the Rif region, once Spanish in its possession, has much to do with the presence of the bold pattern.

Color is clearly an essential part of Chaouen’s rich history. Chefchaouen, which translates to ‘see the two mountain peaks’ in Darija, was founded in the 15th century and initially populated by Jews and Moriscos fleeing the Spanish Inquisition.

Many stories have circulated over time as to why Chaouen is so utterly blue. Some say that European immigrant Jews chose to paint the tiny town sapphire upon fleeing Hitler’s Nazi regime. Some insist it’s a natural protection against mosquitos. And some even claim that Chaouen is blue as part of its etheral and spiritual aura. In any case, the haven of Chaouen is famous for its gorgeous blue hue; throwing peaceful shades of vibrant azure throughout its charming, winding passageways.

Chaouen has still managed, over the years, to keep much of its pastoral, tranquil appeal. It’s one of those places where you feel you might have just stepped back a few hundred years. In fact, time seems to slow down in Chaouen. Locals still seem to follow sunrise and sunset as their faithful guide. After all, the community around Chaouen is still vastly a farming one. The Rif Mountain range is enormous, spreading from Tangiers all the way south and east to Tetouan and Chaouen.

Tara's 3 girls peering over the city

The women of the Rif mountain region have adapted to a rugged, rural terrain for centuries. They need clothing that is sturdy, robust and lasts over time. The thick, softly woven cotton of the mandil is ideal for these hard-working locals.

Most female weavers learn their trade from birth; carefully watching their mothers, aunts, sisters and grandmothers patiently labor on their looms, their worn, creviced hands working tirelessly day in, day out. Weaving, sewing, embroidering is in their blood; it flows through them like the blue paint that is stirred in the vivid colors of the old medina doors.

One such women’s group is high above the tiny village of Dardara, 10 km from Chaouen, about a 35-minute bumpy drive down the mountain and into the larger town. The co-op doesn’t even have a name; it is just a small building with no water or electricity and a group of very active female weavers.

Typically, one mandil takes a full day for a woman to weave on a basic wooden loom. The supplies cost about 10 dirhams ($1). The mandil then sells on the local market yielding a few dollars profit, a substantial amount for the weaver.

The telltale traditional red and white colors of the mandils vary depending on the communities of women who wear them throughout the enormous rural region. They are really the identification keys of each community.

In recent years, these distinct materials have caught the eye of vendors and tourists alike.

Other colors, as a result, have been introduced as an entrepreneurial spirit has taken over and merchants have started requesting additional patterns and colors. However, the true originals are deep red and white. One can still see this if you catch a glimpse of a local woman washing clothes or selling vegetables in the surrounding villages. The indigo shades of Chaouen are now visible in the blues and whites of the mandils as well.

The practicality of these fabrics have two benefits for locals-the men and women weavers of the region will always need the mandils for their physical labor as well as protection from the harsh elements. In an enterprising sense, there will also likely continue to be a demand for this unique product to tourists visiting the region.

The story of the mandil is a success story in Morocco for of women creating an income for themselves and seeking an independence that they would not normally be able to find in such a traditional region. These women’s weaving co-ops create a unique means for women to have a small income in a bucolic area, where they would not normally have had the possibility to go to school to learn a trade or profession. This gives them a chance at success; no matter how small it might seem.

These shades of Chaouen-the rusty red of a brilliant sunset from the peaceful rooftop terraces, the pristine white of the puffy broccoli-shaped clouds above the tremendous mountain peaks, the dreamy blue of the dusty medieval doors of the old town. Paramount to the region and etched forever in the hearty cottons of the mandils.

 

By Tara Fraiture, Mushmina blogger

Mushmina, mindful fashion and home.

www.mushmina.com

 

 

 

 

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Rabia El Alama is, one could say, an unofficial ambassador of goodwill here in Morocco. She is also a household name and a role model to many Moroccans, particularly women, to whom she feels especially connected.

Officially, Rabia is the head of the AmCham, the American Chamber of Commerce of Morocco; whose goal is to promote bilateral relations between the United States and Morocco. We here at Mushmina gravitate towards Rabia because she is an incredible leader, inspirational teacher, and loyal friend to Moroccans, Americans, and all global citizens alike.

Rabia and Mushmina sisters

Rabia is particularly motivated to help empowering women within the small business sector. But as she explains, “Education is the key onset for women in this country, as well as any country globally. Once a woman is exposed to the joy of learning, a seed is planted inside her, and a whole new world of independence opens. Part of learning is working in a classroom with others. Most women in rural areas of Morocco do not have this experience. It’s rooted in our culture. They do not go to school. We have to change this. We have to alter this mindset.”

Rabia goes on to talk about how she encourages women to begin thinking about becoming entrepreneurs. “No matter how small her potential business is, there always is room for a woman to dream. Here in Morocco, whether it be opening up a simple vegetable stand or creating a handmade jewelry line, women are vastly talented and creative. They just need the leadership tools and the guidance to begin.”

Rabia’s advice for young women around the world?

Don’t ever stop learning. Pursue higher education. Seek scholarships. Learn from others. Continue to be inspired every day. Think outside the box. Don’t be intimidated by other successful women. Ask them what has helped them and what has driven them to succeed. And if you have the chance, encourage other women, particularly younger girls, to become leaders themselves.

The answer, Rabia is certain, is countering the culture of greed that we humans, have created. The key is in kindness. She tells me, “Women have been taught this. Humans have been taught this. Particularly in a poverty-ridden country like Morocco where there is often a fight to survive. Where there is such a difference between the have’s and the have-not’s. This culture can breed jealousy and envy. Women who should be working together to attain a goal of independence.” She continues, “Jealousy halts this progress. It’s toxic. And it’s counter-productive; particularly in the business world where it’s essential to learn from others.”

So how do women defy this counter-productivity? Rabia takes a simple, but effective approach to her business model. She explains her success theory, “Being an accomplished entrepreneur does mean that you have a competitive flair but this does not mean that you have to sacrifice your integrity and kindness as a human being. Sharing happiness is infectious. Training young people to be strong and driven in their businesses but also to be good people outside of their jobs is possible.”

She goes on, “I tell potential female business owners if there is something missing in your idea, business, or model, turn it into a positive instead of a negative. If someone else is doing better business than you, ask what has inspired them and what has been profitable. Again, learn from others. Turn that potentially destructive moment and make it positive.”

Rabia finds that showing success stories of women working together is an encouragement for female business owners. Soft skills, she says, are expertise easily taught, but not innate in many women who are not educated. And Rabia’s heart is truly invested in helping the youth and women who need her most; those who have little education and financial means. She goes all over Morocco working tirelessly with women’s groups, teaching basic entrepreneurial-skills, sustainability, and people skills. As part of this movement, Rabia also founded a unique non-profit for women called the ‘Women Advancement Network’, or WAN. It is her mission to promote women in the business world.

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Rabia easily found her own inspiration in those whom she treasures most-her family. Growing up in the small port city of Safi, about three hours south of Casablanca, Rabia remembers her grandmother’s story-a young mother of three whose husband suddenly died when she was only 26 years old. “My grandmother was suddenly alone and dependent on others because she had nothing to offer society. Ironically, she worked harder than anyone I knew. I recall vividly the day she cut off her long, beautiful locks of hair because as she put it, she had no time to care for such a superficial thing. She chopped her hair very short. I won’t ever forget this and the immense sadness I felt for her.”

Rabia went on to say that as her grandmother did not have the means to send all of her three children to school. Only Rabia’s uncle profited from an education abroad. Rabia’s mother was married at the mere age 11 and her sister, Rabia’s aunt, at age 14. To this day, Rabia’s mother regrets her own lack of education. It was her mother’s dedicated mission to send all of her ten children to school and on to university. And she did.

Rabia earned both her Bachelor’s Degree and her Master’s at Casablanca’s prestigious business school, ISCAE, where she studied finance, marketing and international trade. Her close-knit family continues to be her support and inspiration. And now, her daughter is following in some big footsteps, studying business in New York.

This goodwill, this kindness, this mantra, is a lifestyle and more than a job for Rabia. Caring for her family, providing for others, encouraging homegrown entrepreneurs, and advancing the disadvantaged in her own country. This is what makes her tick. And this is why we here at Mushmina are in awe of her. Case in point, when she read over the draft of this blog to make sure I hadn’t made any glaring errors, her humble (and typical) response was, ‘This piece inspires me to do more.”

By Tara Fraiture, Mushmina blogger

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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